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Illegal variants of GM seeds are threatening the future of cotton in India

Rarish Joshi
The biotech revolution in India has turned into a nightmare. At least in Gujarat, where cotton farmers are happily using illegal versions of genetically-modified (GM) cotton seeds. The so-called regulator set up by the environment ministry, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), has failed to exercise any control on what's happening in the fields. What's worse is that no one has any idea of the impact these illegal seeds can have on the future cotton crop in the state.

The drama began after the GEAC gave monopoly rights to Monsanto, an American MNC, and its Indian partner, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Corporation (Mahyco), to sell their Bollgard cotton seeds. But by then, an illegal variant, Navbharat 151, grown over 11,000 acres by Ahmedabad's Navbharat Seeds, was already selling in the market. In October 2001, the GEAC asked the state government to destroy Rs 150-crore worth of Navbharat cotton crop. But nothing happened. Except that Navbharat Seeds' owner, Dinkar B. Desai, went into hiding in the wake of the controversy.

But the state's farmers, who account for 20-30 per cent of India's cotton production, were in a quandary. Since Bollgard did not perform consistently, Navbharat 151 was banned, and non-hybrid seeds had high associated costs, they found other ways to use GM seeds. "What they (the breeders) did was to procure the parental lines of Navbharat's seeds and cross them with local variants to give birth to newer versions. In the last year or so, at least a dozen hybrid varieties have hit the market without any research or approvals or trials," says Bharat Chitalia, a researcher and a farmer in Dhoraji, Rajkot.

Rakshak, Maharakshak, Dhanlaxmi... the list of illegal seeds seems to be growing by the day. In fact, some of them are even named after individuals: Mangubhai's Bt, Shantibhai's Bt, Jayantibhai's Bt. These seeds are openly available in the market and could be either hybrid or even cotton brought from the fields of neighbours and friends. "It's a dangerous game which says, 'Come, be trapped', in which the farmers are not aware of the consequences," warns Chitalia.

For, the illegal versions could adversely affect soil conditions, productivity or breed new diseases. But, at the moment, no one seems to care—the farmer is interested in his immediate crop, the regulator seems paralysed and the seed makers are laughing their way to the bank. Says Natubhai Makadia, a Junagadh-based supplier of Rakshak seed: "Since only Monsanto has been allowed to sell Bt seeds, it now depends on farmer-to-farmer relations." This unregulated business runs on trust between the buyer and the seller and the seed manufacturers have formed an association to break Monsanto's monopoly.

Even the state government has realised that illegal hybrid seeds have become a veritable cottage industry. And it's proliferating. A confidential report of a six-member expert committee to study Bt (GM) cotton performance in Kharif 2002 states that "If Navbharat 151 or similar varieties are not granted approval early, it will continue to encourage unauthorised cultivation of cotton with untested hybrid seeds and can have disastrous results." (Outlook has a copy of this report.)

Confirmation of the dangerous trend comes from Naran Patel, president, Gujarat State Seeds Producers Association. He says such things are bound to happen because the GEAC doesn't recognise any brand except Monsanto's Bollgard and is not giving approvals to any new seeds. "I don't support the entry of illegal seeds in the market. But when you create a monopoly position for a long time, this is bound to happen, especially when there's demand for the product," he explains.

The controversy has also exposed the fact that there is no mechanism either at the central or state level to prevent the sale of illegal seeds.In the case of Navbharat 151, the GEAC became aware of its existence only after Monsanto's complaints in 2001. And now, the GEAC has apparently learnt about the existence of other varieties only through media reports. More important, the central regulator has no infrastructure to stop the usage of the illegal varieties.

At the state level too, the State Biotechnology Coordination Committee was unaware of the illegal market. Admits A.G. Dixit, the state's director of agriculture: "We are helpless if farmers exchange seeds among themselves. We can only raid places on the basis of information. But when breeders and farmers mutually agree to an illegal act, we can't do much." He blames the GEAC for the delay in approvals of new seeds.

For the farmers, it doesn't make a difference whether the seeds are legal or illegal. They accuse the GEAC of supporting Monsanto's cause by banning the popularly-used Navbharat 151 and not approving the introduction of new seeds. "Navbharat 151 was in use for at least five years. And after it survived the pest attack in 2001, it became a hot favourite with the state's cotton growers," recalls Lalshankar Upadhyaya, president, Gujarat Khedut Samaj, a farmers' association.

At the same time, while Monsanto is making noises in biotech circles about the efficacy of its seeds, it has a history of failure in various cotton-growing states. Expert agriculture committees in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have already concluded that GM seeds have not performed well. The Gujarat team, headed by S.K. Sanghani, the state's joint director of agriculture (oilseeds), has gone a step further and said that the Monsanto seeds have proved to be a catastrophe for the farmers.

Take a look at the specific points mentioned in the report dated November 17, 2002: "The prices of Mahyco's Bt cotton seeds were prohibitive and were like a loot of the farmers. Instead of reducing the input costs, the use of these seeds have added to the expenditure. The farmers are determined never to use the Mahyco seeds again, while they are enthusiastic about Navbharat 151. The permission given to Bollgard should be reconsidered and Navbharat 151 seeds should be approved so that the farmers get more production and better quality at lower costs."

Farmers echo similar feelings. Lalshankar Upadhyaya sums up their anger: "Give me one reason why the GEAC continues with its approval of Bollgard. It has failed everywhere. Farmers want Navbharat 151 because it has succeeded everywhere. Why does the GEAC, sitting far away in Delhi, wish to control the fate of farmers across the country?"

Under such a scenario, farmers in Gujarat are left with just two options—either they buy the illegal varieties, which have been crossbred with Navbharat 151 or others, or they shift from cotton to other crops. While the dem-

and for the unregulated variants is increasing—Monsanto seeds reportedly have a very low marketshare in the state—a trend in crop shift too is evident. To cite an example, the Dhoraji-based Chitalia has stopped growing cotton. Others in Dhoraji's Kumbharwada locality, where 250 families used to grow cotton on as much as 2,000 acres of land, too have opted for multiple crops. Jayantibhai Baldha, another resident farmer, used to grow cotton on 16 acres but now he grows groundnut on 70 per cent of his land.

But why can't the farmers go back to using the non-hybrid seeds? What's their fascination with GM seeds despite all the controversies? The answer lies in the fact that the farmers have realised that using GM seeds (especially the local variants) results in lower insecticide and pesticide costs. The profits, as a result, are higher. Confides Baldha: "We can no longer survive on non-hybrid cotton.And we may be left with no choice but to go in for the illegal varieties made by local fly-by-night companies."

Clearly, it's time the GEAC put its act together. Otherwise, the country may soon end up with a major cotton crop crisis, besides other unseen consequences.
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